Deep Knowledge: The Chamber of Sticky Notes (Part 3 of 4)

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I’ve been looking for the solid truths of the world, things I can know without a doubt. And yet, I’ve discovered that–though I don’t doubt the existence of the truly real–to say that the real exists is a very different thing than to say I understand the real.

You may have seen the movie version of a command center: panels of screens, some with scrolling data, others with plots of missile trajectories or disease outbreaks, and yet others awaiting instructions (authenticated by iris scan or voice-print, of course) from the Very Important People. They know what they need to know. They have eyes in the sky, NSA taps into Internet chokepoints, radar, real-time data feeds. They know how to respond, and they do so decisively. It’s a very satisfying story.

The command center of my psyche is a bit different. Behind a sliding bookcase, at the end of a tunnel that glows with candlelight and smells of incense, is a windowless room. It’s anything but gloomy, with warm wood walls and abundant cushions for reclining. There’s a desk and a comfortable chair…and on every wall, a chaos of sticky notes.

“I should eat more protein; p=0.6.”. “Cycling even in horrible air is still a net positive for health; p=.55”. “John is generally trustworthy; p=.95”. “Killing a person without provocation is morally wrong; p=.999”. “I should not give to beggars by default; p=.5”.

You might know the story of Erwin Schrödinger’s hypothesized cat, who lived (or died) in a box with a flask of poison and a switch to open the flask (or not) based on the randomness of radioactive decay. Until the box is opened, says Schrödinger’s interpretation of quantum theory, the cat is both dead and alive. Aside from the flask-of-poison thing, the cat has a wonderful life. It will not, it cannot, commit to so simple a thing as being either alive or dead!

Unlike the cat, I’m often forced to decide. I’m often forced to act. And those decisions are never perfect ones, based on a perfectly clear view of reality. I’m forced to make a provisional decision, a guess, and then move forward from it. But the guess might be wrong!

Some guesses “feel” more confidently right than others. I really don’t think I’ll conclude anytime soon that, well, execution by flaying is after all an appropriate action in some cases; my opinion on the subject is really rather firm. But my sense that “it will probably take about an hour to go across town” has much less confidence attached–neither half an hour nor an hour and a half would be completely shocking. Both of these have subjective probabilities of being right; the “no gruesome killings rule” with near certainty, the travel-time expectation with about 50% confidence. And yet, I sometimes have to act on an assumption that’s as likely to be wrong as right–or even, sometimes, on a “best out there, but probably wrong” one.

The problem is, the inability to see perfectly inheres in being human. In other words, flawed perception and flawed reasoning is guaranteed. (If you haven’t had your fill of umlauts, go check out Kurt Gödel for one lens on this.) In such a situation, the question is not whether you’re wrong, it’s a question of how wrong you are. And then, to act in the way that seems least wrong, with no guarantees that it is indeed the least-wrong way. And so, my sticky-noted beliefs have probabilities attached. They might be wrong. Even the probabilities might be wrong. But life often demands answers, and the sticky notes provide them–acknowledging that they’re imperfect, that I’m imperfect, and that I can truly, indubitably, know almost nothing at all. To claim otherwise is to assert my perfection, which I’m far from ready to do.

“Sticky notes” aren’t just for insignificant issues. Often, the “wishy-washiness” of a sticky-note isn’t because its subject doesn’t matter; it’s because it does, and the issues are far too important and too complex to risk “locking into” a wrong position. And yet, since many situations demand “answers”, the sticky notes are there: acknowledgments that my understanding is certainly incorrect and incomplete to some degree, and that each of my “answers” is provisional, and subject to change if I find a better one.

Among the sticky notes, there is one small cluster of metal etchings. That’s a cluster of things I simply choose, completely indefensibly, to hold as true. (I don’t pretend to have moved beyond the smallest foothills of understanding it, but Michael Polanyi’s work on “personal knowledge”, as filtered through the first part of Lesslie Newbigin’s Proper Confidence, was nevertheless a game-changer for me on this, an argument that a set of some such indefensible commitments is essential to communicating about any kind of knowledge.)

Each of my sticky notes helps me engage the world without collapsing into indecision. Each one reflects the reality of my cognition: three pounds of soft tissue trying to grasp something far vaster than itself, with the guarantee that its perceptions will be incomplete and incorrect, and that their processing will be influenced greatly by the “noise” within and without.

Sometimes, in the windowless comfort of the Chamber, there’s an inexplicable whisper of wind. The notes on the wall rustle; occasionally, one falls to the floor and I can’t quite figure out where to reattach it. And I rest, and I read, and I sort, and I update my scribbled portals to the world.

Deep Knowledge is a four-part series in progress, in which I ramble concerning the nature of knowledge, our capacity to handle it, and our orientation to it. Parts include:

Deep Knowledge: A Foggy Window (Part 2 of 4)

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This post follows “A Place to Stand“, in which I described my search for deep knowledge that could let me understand and control my world.

Reality exists. Descartes demonstrated at least that, as he realized that a non-existent entity is unlikely to be considering the question of its existence. And even a simulated consciousness points to the “reality” of the simulator. I think it’s fair to assume that a reality of some sort exists, and (as long as I ignore the faint meowing of Mr. Schrodinger’s cat) that it exists largely indifferent to my understanding, or even awareness, of it.

Reality exists. I understand reality to exist in a certain way. I experience gravity pulling me down as I write. But is that attraction the mass of my body being pulled toward the larger mass of Earth? Is it simply a manifestation of the way my body and the planet mutually warp space-time? Or are the things I think of as “I”, the planet, the universe, and the relations among them just ways of interpreting the vibrations of 26-dimensional strings? (By the way, to anyone reading this who actually knows what they’re talking about in physics, my apologies.) Reality exists. That doesn’t meant that I understand reality.

I know that, at one point, the Americas contained societies very different from those of Europe. I know that Europeans came to the Americas and became the dominant culture in what is now the USA, that fighting broke out, and ended with England ceasing to govern “the American colonies” and a new, federal government being formed. Although I think these are fairly universally accepted facts, a Native American, an “American Patriot” of that era, a Loyalist American of that era, or a Briton would all have different understandings of what “really” happened–even, I suspect, if miraculously given all the necessary ability and time to observe every event and every person’s thoughts at the time.

My perspective is finite, is biased by my history and environment, and is therefore incomplete and inaccurate. So is that of every other human who has ever lived. It isn’t that we have not yet learned the correct perspective; it is that there is no possibility, given three pounds (or three megatons) of brain matter, of ever achieving a perspective that is complete and fully accurate.

The thing is, I know there’s a reality that’s worth digging for. Or, at least, I’m acting in faith that that’s so. But my confidence that I, or anyone else, is able to clearly perceive it has been on a steady downward trend for most of my adult life. The Apostle Paul, a couple of millennia ago, spoke of the situation (as translated to the English of the 1600s) as “seeing through a glass darkly”–gaining hints of reality, through distorted filters. In a strange paradox, the more you learn about your own filter, the more you can correct for it–but the more you learn about the distortions of the filter you know about, the more likely it seems that there are other filters to which you’re still oblivious.

The anthropologist Paul Hiebert proposes “triangulation” as a helpful tool for reducing distortions in our perception, using diverse viewpoints to help correct each other to estimate what’s behind the veil. I think he’s right–but it’s an issue of reduction rather than elimination, and a process subject to its own biases, and a collaboration among finite beings. It’s worthwhile–but, two thousand years after the apostle wrote, we still find ourselves gazing at reality through clouded panes of glass, and unable to completely pierce the clouds.

When reality matters, and when one can’t clearly see it, what is one to do?

A man said to the universe:

“Sir, I exist!”

“However,” replied the universe,

“The fact has not created in me

A sense of obligation.”

-Stephen Crane

Deep Knowledge is a four-part series in progress, in which I ramble concerning the nature of knowledge, our capacity to handle it, and our orientation to it. Parts include:

Deep Knowledge: A Place To Stand (Part 1 of 4)

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Archimedes reportedly claimed that, given a lever long enough and a place to use as a fulcrum, he could move the earth. For much of my life, I’ve been in search of that fulcrum: the hidden knowledge of the universe, whereby I can understand reality, maybe even control it. Or, failing to find that fulcrum, perhaps I might find at least a mite of solid ground on which to build.

I’m hardly alone in this search for deep reality. The ancient Gnostics claimed to know the origins and structure of the world, and the means of escaping this cursed plane. The sciences are all about digging at least a little deeper into understanding reality. The humanities, through different paths, pursue the same. In the fictional world of The Matrix, our reality is a simulation, controlled by code and the machines we once created–a fictional notion, with serious real-world theory paralleling it. Religions and anti-religions proffer their models of “deep reality” and its implications for life now. The alchemists, for millennia, sought the Philosophers’ Stone, the hypothesized original material of the universe, with its power over matter and life. Shamans, diviners, and sorcerers have long reached for knowledge and powers beyond our plane, in an effort to understand and control the physical world we inhabit. Overall…no, I’m not alone in this search.

I’ve sought a philosophy of life built on deep metaphysical bedrock, formed of carbon nanotubes and genius: one rationally constructed, well-patterned, soaring, resilient and strong. One that I can rely on and offer to others: a True philosophy, a Valid one, a reliable guide for life. Preferably, tablets of granite or gold, indubitably inscribed with the words of True Insight.

The world seems a chaotic place, and I’ve wished for knowledge to tame it. After all, the sage wrote that at the beginning of time, it was through wisdom and knowledge that YHWH laid the earth’s foundations and constrained the sea. Surely, if I understood reality well enough, I could tame just a small part of the chaos of the universe, could plant a seed of something glorious?

If I merely had a place to stand, then surely I would be secure, ready to meet all comers, ready to stand boldly before the world! If only a piece of the deep knowledge of the world were mine…

At the start of history, the Hebrew scriptures say, were humans. And the humans sought knowledge, and they gained it, and their innocence was shattered, and they were sent forth from the paradise they inhabited, lest they live forever in their new state. And their descendants came together in a city, and they built a glorious structure, a totem of their dominion on earth and a path of ascent to the heavens, and YHWH again scattered them. And yet again, the prophet spoke of the one who claimed the right to ascend beyond the stars and become like the Most High…of the one whose hubris carried him to a death with no tomb.

Deep Knowledge is a four-part series in progress, in which I ramble concerning the nature of knowledge, our capacity to handle it, and our orientation to it. Parts include:

Daring A Little Bit

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I’ve been reading Brené Brown recently–specifically, Rising Strong. But if you know her work, you know about the idea of “daring greatly”, an idea from Teddy Roosevelt:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Teddy Roosevelt, as cited on GoodReads

Brown, from her work on vulnerability, identifies being vulnerable with “daring greatly”: bringing your self, not some illusion of your self, to the arena, knowing that it’s the only real path forward. And knowing that if you do that often enough, you’re eventually going to find yourself, bloody and dirty, on the ground.

I’m not ready to dare greatly, especially in the capricious sadism of the online arena–but perhaps I can dare a little bit.

I like to process things for myself, considering them thoroughly–sometimes for minutes, sometimes for years, sometimes for decades–before bringing them out for others to inspect. Or, sometimes, leaving them locked in a storage room. I might, after all, be wrong about something. Others might disagree with me, whether I’m wrong or not. Or I might not have the appropriate caveats and nuances in places. Or I might leave out an important corollary that I’ll wish later I’d mentioned. And if I’d show others a piece of my work, of myself, that is flawed, that is not the finest it could be…how sad that would be; how embarrassing, and how damaging to my future prestige and influence!

Or, perhaps, not. Or maybe it doesn’t matter.

I love words. I love learning. I love thought. I love reading those writers who, with razor pens or evocative poetry, beautifully express powerful thoughts and change the world thereby. And in the meantime, I’m at best a journeyman writer, and probably still an apprentice. I love learning and wisdom, but I’m often intellectually lazy. I love the transcendent paths of faith and philosophy, and I often betray them. I marvel at the insights of scholars and philosophers…and realize I have nothing original of my own to offer. I delight in the beautiful ways others present timeless truths…and realize that any art of mine has already been far surpassed.

And yet…those who went before weren’t demigods. They sometimes saw more clearly than most, offering apocalypses of scientific or mystical insight. But all were humans. People who, universally, began their lives unable to write or think well. Scared people, arrogant people, brilliant people, people of deep common wisdom, people with impostor syndrome and people with god complexes. Prodigies, people who came late to the table, people from the best universities and from no university at all. And each, whatever their giftings of intellect or environment, worked to develop their craft. And along the way, they produced a lot of garbage, whether it’s been preserved for our eyes or not. And, if everything else was aligned and they worked well, they improved over time in their thought and expression.

So maybe there’s hope. And maybe it’s OK if I don’t change the world with my writing. And if I don’t get everything said that should be said. And if I’m wrong sometimes. And if I produce a lot of embarrassing, unoriginal, pedestrian garbage…as long as I’m thinking, processing, learning, and growing, and perhaps occasionally writing something worth reading. Maybe there is nothing new under the sun, but maybe my re-mixes aren’t worse than everyone else’s. Maybe, even if I’m not now an especially remarkable thinker or writer, I should think, and I should write.

If I can’t now “dare greatly” in heroic effort to change the world, perhaps I can dare a little, dare to drop what occasional pennies I may have into the temple offering.